My search for something "warm, cozy & casual" turned up several suggestions, with El Gringo being the chosen place. All in all, a positive experience.
First - they don't take reservations, it's first come first serve. As it turned out, that wasn't really a problem for us. When the six of us arrived at 7:00 PM, the place was only about 1/4 full - so instead of taking a table right away, we decided to go have a drink in the Red House Bar first. The bar, as someone previously noted, is very "hokey" in decor, but the service was fast and the drinks made well. The wine list is spartan, but I wasn't really expecting something extensive. It's a good place to hang out, have a drink, socialize and wait for your table.
Around 7:30 I walked up and told the hostess we'd like the next available table. I'm glad we didn't wait any longer, because by 8:00 PM the place was packed, with people standing in line waiting to put their name down. We stayed there until around 9:30, and it was full the entire time. The clientele is young (at 40, I'd estimate I was older than 90% of the other patrons), so if you don't want to wait, get there around 7:00. It definitely seems to be "the place to go".
Because it was so full, the place was also noisy, which is surprising since it doesn't have lots of glass or stone, or other sound reflecting surfaces. Nonetheless, if you're looking for a place to have a intimate dinner with conversation, this really isn't the place, at least not on a Saturday night.
But how was the food? In all, pretty good. Subtlety is not a word to describe this menu - everything is all about bold flavor. For a starter I ordered the Duck Pozole, which I thought was very tasty. It had a rich spicy broth with nicely cooked hominy and pieces of duck meat. I wouldn't have minded a few more pieces of duck meat, but it was enough. My wife ordered the house salad. They didn't skimp on the lettuce, which was nice, but I was surprised at no tomatoes (maybe I just think all salads should have tomatoes) - but it did include goat cheese, apples and pecans. The dressing has a maple flavor, which I liked but wifey didn't care for it. It's noticeable, so if you're not a fan of maple, probably want to look at other options.
For the entree, my wife ordered the Shrimp & Grits, and I chose the Braised Spare Ribs. The shrimp are cooked by wrapping a peeled shrimp and sliver of jalapeno in a piece of bacon and then deep frying it (they're not breaded). I suppose that makes them little nuggets of cholesterol, but they tasted pretty good. I really liked having the jalapeno in there - it was just large enough of a slice to give it flavor without creating something too spicy hot. The cojita cheese grits were also really tasty, cooked well - not soupy at all, and the cojita cheese gave them a nice flavor. The pineapple salsa wasn't bad but unremarkable. My Braised Spare Ribs were quite good, but be warned - this is a heavy dish. After eating this all you're going to want to do is take a big nap, but I digress. They were very good - well cooked, not too fatty, tender and tasty. I really liked the poblano cumin sauce and the pico spinach that came with it, the spinach not being at all bitter or grainy. It also came with the same grits as the shrimp dish.
The other dish I tried (had a bite from one of my companion's place) was the Pan-Roasted Chicken. While it wasn't bad, it had a lot of garlic in it (see above about bold flavor). The chicken was cooked well, but I wouldn't recommend it unless you really like garlic.
The restaurant made a major hiccup with one of the dishes, however. My other friend ordered the daily special, lamb loin chops, asking for them to be cooked medium. When he received the dish, they were raw. Not just rare, raw - the sides had been barely browned. Our server, who had a full section, was quickly back to check if we liked the dishes and immediately took the plate back to the kitchen. A few minutes later she returned with the plate. Unfortunately, the meat was still woefully undercooked - I like meat a little on the medium rare side, and I wouldn't have eaten this. The manager came by about a minute later - and my friend showed him the undercooked meat. Again, they immediately took the plate back, where he had the kitchen make up a brand new plate for my friend. This unfortunately, took a little bit of time the second time around, so most of us were halfway through our dishes before he finally got his food. I didn't taste the final dish, but my friend really liked it. He joked that once they finally cooked it, it was delicious.
I'll give the restaurant credit, though, for being on-top of the situation. The server and manager both acted fast and without any sort of huffy-ness. Without asking, the manager took the lamb dish off our bill and gave us two free desserts as compensation. And when he brought the lamb back the final time, we waited and made sure it was cooked to my friend's liking before leaving. A very professional handling of the situation.
The deserts we chose were a lemon chess pie and a chocolate cookie cherry ice cream sandwich. The lemon chess pie was really good, nice and tart. The flavor of the ice cream and the cookies were great - but the cookie was cooked pretty hard, which made it had to eat. A softer cookie would be a better solution, but the dish still tasted good.
Overall, everyone enjoyed both hanging out in the bar and the food they got. El Gringo's closest comparison in Austin, to both food style and price, is Moonshine. The prices run $10 - $19 for the entrees, and are hearty enough to please most people. Based on this dining experience, I recommend it for a fun night out when you're not necessarily looking for fine dining experience. Just make sure they cook your lamb. :-)
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